Cotton production in Uzbekistan

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Cotton field, c. 1910

Cotton production in Uzbekistan is important to the national economy of the country. It is Uzbekistan's main cash crop, accounting for 17% of its exports in 2006.[1] With annual cotton production of about 1 million ton of fiber (4%-5% of world production) and exports of 700,000-800,000 tons (10% of world exports), Uzbekistan is the 6th largest producer and the 11th largest exporter of cotton in the world.[2] Cotton's nickname in Uzbekistan is "white gold" (oq oltin).[3]

The industry is state-controlled on a national level. Over one million public servants, employees of private businesses and children are involved in the harvesting of cotton. Many of these individuals are forced to labor in the cotton fields, receiving little or no pay. In an economy which is the 82nd largest in the world, the role of cotton is crucial for Uzbekistan. But its production has declined over the years. Cotton production peaked in 1988 to 8,000 bales and as of 2012 is around 4500 bales (1 million tons). The reason for this downward trend is attributed to the precedence given to cultivate food crops, an essential requirement. Its cotton exports are mainly to China, Bangladesh, Korea and Russia. Uzbekistan has launched a development effort to many manufacture cotton textiles through enhancing cotton processing chains and mills.[2][4] The Uzbekistan cotton industry has also been affected by the boycotting of its cotton by many global companies after human rights reports revealed the working conditions in the country, child labor, and forced labor.[5]


A man volunteering to harvest cotton, 2012

Cotton grown on Uzbekistan land was recorded nearly 2000 years ago by the Chinese.[6] Production of cotton dramatically increased under Soviet Russian and the Uzbek SSR, with the Uzbek SSR accounting for 70% of Soviet production.[6] The government strictly controlled the industry and introduced quotas to ensure efficient production at collective farms (kolkhozes).[6] Between 1976 and 1983, the country's leadership defrauded the Soviet central bank by falsely inflating Uzbek cotton harvest yields, characterizing the "cotton scandal" as the most notorious scandal during the tenure of Sharof Rashidov;[7] it resulted in discrediting the political elite of Uzbekistan.[8] Since independence, the Soviet-style quotas have remained intact and the Uzbek government still dominate the national industry.[9]

Because of the risks associated with a one-crop economy as well as from considerations of food security for the population, Uzbekistan has been moving to diversify its production into cereals, while reducing cotton production. Thus, the area sown to cotton was reduced from 1.8 million hectares in 1990 to 1.4 million hectares in 2006, while the area under cereals increased from 1.0 million to 1.6 million hectares (in part at the expense of areas allocated to feed crops).[10] Another cause behind moves to diversify may be environmental, because the large quantities of irrigation and fertilization needed to produce cotton have contributed to the drying up of the Aral Sea and to the severe pollution of the soil in the surrounding areas.


Cotton is planted during April-early May and harvested in September. The plantation are concentrated in the periphery of Aydar_Lake (near Bukhara) and also to some extent in Tashkent along the Syr Darya, and along the Amu Darya in the border area with Turkmenistan. During the year 2010-11, the area under cotton plantation was about 1.3 million hectares and the yield of lint reported was 752 kg/hectare. Okdare 6, Namangan 77 and Tashkent 6 are the common varieties of cotton planted in the country. However, while appreciating the need to introduce better high yielding and early maturing cotton, new varieties have been adopted since 2009; these varieties are: Bukhara 102, Bukhara 8, Andijan 35 and Khoresm 150. Most of cotton farms are irrigated but there is need to rehabilitate the water supply system to reduce water loss. Pests are suitably controlled with biological methods.[4]

Forced labour[edit]

Forced child labour in cotton production is a practice in Uzbekistan, and the Uzbekistani government have long employed children as young as 9 in the industry.[11] From a very young age, children are reared to look forward to harvest time, known as "pahta" and to enjoy harvesting the cotton as an "opportunity for them to contribute to their nation's prosperity".[9] Many farmers are forced to produce cotton but the state reaps the profits for exporting it.[12] If government workers and professionals refuse to work they can be penalised with a lower income and the child workers can be beaten.[11]

Anti-Slavery International describes the conditions of the cotton industry in the country as "appalling".[11] The Cotton Campaign was established to improve human rights in Uzbekistan. They allege that the Karimov administration "detains, tortures, and exiles Uzbek citizens who call for recognition of human rights, violating their human rights and denying freedoms of speech and the press" and that the forced labour system in the country "violates the human rights of Uzbek citizens and condemns future generations to a cycle of poverty" and "blatantly violates the international convention against trafficking in persons and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."[12] The Cotton Campaign actively seeks for government change in respecting human rights and to permit the International Labour Organization to monitor production in the country.[12]

As a result of the human rights reports of misconduct in Uzbekistan, several companies such as H&M, Tesco, IKEA, Adidas and Marks & Spencer have detached themselves and have proclaimed that they are doing all they can to avoid and boycott the use of Uzbekistani cotton in their products.[9][11] Josefin Thorell, a spokeswoman for IKEA said "We do all we can to ensure that Uzbek cotton is not used in our products, but the traceability process for the cotton industry is not robust. In the case of, for example, Bangladesh, where much of the cotton used in manufacturing is traditionally from Uzbekistan, IKEA suppliers are required to buy from India."[11] In October 2014 Tesco signed the Responsible Sourcing Network's pledge not to source cotton from Uzbekistan. Giles Bolton, Responsible Sourcing Director at Tesco, said: "Tesco was one of the first retailers to ban the use of Uzbek cotton in the supply chain in 2007, and we are now very proud to be a signatory to the Cotton Pledge. Eliminating cotton picked with forced labor is a critical step in the responsible sourcing process." [13]

In response to international pressure and the threat to the industry from the boycotting of its cotton, conditions in the country are gradually improving. In early 2012, Uzbekistani Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev (who has since succeeded Karimov to the presidency of Uzbekistan) issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields.[9] However, many professionals including teachers, college lecturers, doctors and nurses are still forced to work in the fields at times of harvest.[9] Now outlawed, the defoliant Butifos is responsible for exceptionally high infant mortality and birth defect rates among children born to women who work in the cotton fields.[14]

In December 2014, the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor issued by the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the cotton industry is still employing underage children and indentured labourers.

Uzbek human rights activist Elena Urlaeva, who was arrested and detained in psychiatric hospitals in 2015, 2016 and 2017 for shedding a light on forced labour in the cotton industry, played a major role in the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton.[15]


  1. ^ Uzbekistan in Numbers 2006, State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, 2007 (in Russian).
  2. ^ a b "Cotton This Week" (PDF). International Cotton Advisory Committee. February 2005. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  3. ^ uz:Perifraza
  4. ^ a b "Cotton Fact Sheet,Uzbekistan" (pdf). ICAC Organization. Retrieved 14 May 2013.
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c Zanca, Russell G. (2011). Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming After Communism CSCA. Cengage Learning. p. xii, xxi, 66. ISBN 978-0-495-09281-0. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  7. ^ Clark, William A. (1993). Crime and Punishment in Soviet Officialdom: Combating Corruption in the Political Elite, 1965 - 1990. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 187–. ISBN 978-1-56324-056-0. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  8. ^ Melvin, Neil (2000). Uzbekistan: Transition to Authoritarianism on the Silk Road. Harwood Academic Publ. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-90-5823-029-4. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  9. ^ a b c d e "Doctors and nurses forced to pick cotton". BBC. 16 October 2012. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  10. ^ Agriculture in Uzbekistan 2006, State Statistical Committee of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, 2007 (in Russian).
  11. ^ a b c d e "H&M comes under pressure to act on child-labour cotton". The Observer. 15 December 2012. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  12. ^ a b c "END FORCED LABOR IN THE COTTON SECTOR OF UZBEKISTAN". Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Reed Business Information (18 November 1989). New Scientist. Reed Business Information. pp. 22–. ISSN 0262-4079. Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  15. ^ "Arrested, threatened, beaten: The Uzbekistan activist who won't give up". BBC News. June 29, 2015. Retrieved November 29, 2017.